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Authors: Annette Henderson

Wild Spirit

BOOK: Wild Spirit
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A
BOUT THE AUTHOR

Annette Henderson has been writing full-time since 2005. Prior to that, her working life took her to the United Kingdom, Africa, Indonesia and remote Australia. With her husband, Win, she travelled overland from Calcutta to London in a Kombivan, in which they later journeyed from London across the Sahara Desert to Equatorial Africa. Her life changed forever in 1975 when they both took jobs in a mineral camp in remote mountainous forest in Gabon, West Africa. On returning to Australia, she embarked on a career as an anthropologist.

Annette is a committed conservationist, a zoo parent of the lowland gorillas at Taronga Zoo and the adoptive parent of a juvenile orangutan in Borneo. Her articles on Australian birds and reptiles have appeared in
Wildlife Australia Magazine
. Annette and her husband share seven acres of bushland near Brisbane with koalas, wallabies, powerful owls, over 100 species of native birds and their ridgeback cross, Bentleigh. She is a classically trained singer, enjoys regular workouts at a gym, and runs half marathons.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including printing, photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian
Copyright Act 1968
), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Wild Spirit

ePub ISBN 9781742745213

A William Heinemann book
Published by Random House Australia Pty Ltd
Level 3, 100 Pacific Highway, North Sydney NSW 2060
www.randomhouse.com.au

First published by William Heinemann in 2009
Copyright © Annette Henderson 2009

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the
Australian Copyright Act 1968
), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia.

Addresses for companies within the Random House Group can be found at
www.randomhouse.com.au/offices
.

National Library of Australia
Cataloguing-in-Publication Entry

Henderson, Annette Elizabeth, 1945–.
Wild spirit.

ISBN 978 1 74166 671 7 (pbk).
Henderson, Annette – Travel.
Anthropologists – Gabon – Biography.
Culture shock – Gabon.
Endangered species – Effect of human beings on – Gabon.
Gorilla – Conservation – Gabon.
Gabon – Description and travel.

301.092

Cover photograph © Annette Henderson
Cover design by Christabella Designs

The quote on Chapter Sixteen is taken from
One Dry Season: In the Footsteps of Mary Kingsley
, by Caroline Alexander, and is reproduced with the permission of Caroline Alexander and Bloomsbury Publishing.

The names of some of the people in this book have been changed to protect their privacy.

For Win, who dragged me kicking and screaming into a life of
adventure and introduced me to the natural world

A
UTHOR'S NOTE

The United Nations has declared 2009 the
‘Year of the Gorilla'. My hope is that this book will
contribute to the long-term survival of one of our closest
relatives, now critically endangered in the wild. A
percentage of the proceeds from its sale will be donated
to the conservation of western lowland gorillas.

C
ONTENTS

I
NTRODUCTION

Belinga Camp, Gabon, West Africa, July 1975

At 2 am a noise outside the Kombivan woke me. I sat up in bed, held my breath and listened. I didn't have to wait long before it came again – a low-pitched rasping cough, not human. I climbed out of the van into the canvas annexe and crept towards the clear plastic window. It sounded a third time – a hoarse guttural exhalation that sent a chill through me. My eyes darted to check that the flap of the annexe was tightly zipped.

Win had woken. ‘Did you hear that?' I whispered. He had, but even with his knowledge of wildlife, he couldn't identify it. He handed me the torch. ‘Just shine the beam through the window. You might pick up something. Whatever it is, it's pretty close.'

The night was moonless. A symphony of small clicks and buzzes issued from the forest. I switched the torch on and panned the thin beam around through the window. At first I saw nothing. Then the sound came again, closer. I pointed toward it with the torch and then I saw it. In the middle of the dirt road that led up to the generator shed,
a gaunt big cat stood motionless, its eyes glowing amber in the beam.

‘Quick, look at this!' I hissed under my breath. Win was out of bed in a second to stand beside me at the window, his eyes alight with excitement.

‘You realise what that is? It's a leopard! It's come in following our scent trail.'

We stood breathless at the window as the leopard padded down the road towards us, sniffing the air and smelling the ground. My pulse raced, half in excitement, half in fear. Leopards are solitary nocturnal hunters, wary of people and seldom seen in the deep forest. Our passion for wildlife was a major part of what had lured us to Africa, but a rare encounter like this was beyond imagining. This was not a game park, and we were no longer tourists. We were here to work and the leopard had entered our living space.

This was the first time I'd seen a large wild animal in its native surroundings: I watched, spellbound. Was this what our life here would be like all the time?

Several metres from the annexe, it stopped and looked around. Close up, we could see that its coat was in poor condition and its body so thin that the flesh seemed to hang off its bones.

‘That looks like an old animal to me,' Win said. ‘It's probably having trouble getting enough food and has come into camp hoping for an easy meal. We'd better get back in the van and close the sliding door. If that leopard is really hungry, this annexe won't keep it out.'

The leopard stood for perhaps a minute, sweeping the darkness with its eyes, then turned and ambled back up the road again until it was out of range of the torch.

We climbed back into bed and I lay beside Win, my mind racing. Since we'd met five years earlier, our life had been a continuous adventure. My girlhood in Brisbane seemed like a distant dream, and my twelve years of officework felt like part of someone else's life. Now we were here, in Equatorial Africa, two hours from the border with the Republic of the Congo in a world of forested mountains and mighty brown rivers. There were no railways, airfields or main roads here – just the river and long dugout canoes to connect us with civilisation.

Moving to the camp seven days before had been the most profound change yet of my twenty-nine years. In the months ahead, our lives would be played out against the majesty of the great forest and shared with the wild animals whose home it was.

Lying in the Kombi, deep in the equatorial forest in the hours before dawn, I realised my fear of the leopard had turned into awe. Perhaps the leopard was a harbinger of the change Africa would work in me.

In the morning, I was woken by the voices of the men from the village assembling for the day's work in the forest. I pulled on a pair of old jeans and a jumper and unzipped the flap of the annexe. Mist lay over the great forest, trailing off the high canopy in wispy fronds. I looked at the ground outside. At my feet, the powdery red dirt bore large four-toed paw prints, clearly visible in the soft light. The leopard's tracks led around the annexe and down the hill towards the village. It must have returned for a closer look.

The workmen greeted me: ‘
Bonjour, madame! Vous voyez? L'empreinte de pas de léopard!
' They had seen the tracks too, and pointed to the imprints at my feet. ‘
Attention, madame – il est très méchant!
' They were warning me, as the newcomer, to be
careful. I smiled my thanks at the men, rugged up in their long-sleeved pullovers and woollen hats, then walked across to the guesthouse for breakfast.

 

Africa first beckoned to me during the depths of a London winter – February 1974, to be precise. Win and I had been married just fourteen months and were renting a bedsit in a red-brick Victorian house in the leafy suburb of Willesden Green. We'd deliberately avoided Earls Court and the other hangouts of expatriate Australians, as we didn't want to be labelled as beer-swilling, loud-mouthed, football/cricket-mad philistines.

Our one concession to the stereotype of globetrotting Australians was that we owned a Volkswagen Kombivan. But we hadn't bought it at the ‘used car yard' outside Australia House in the Strand: we had shipped it, and another just like it, brand new from Germany to Calcutta early in 1973, and travelled the overland route to London through the Khyber Pass, Afghanistan, Iran and points west. That trip had been our honeymoon, but we had shared the first six months of our marriage with thirteen other people from Brisbane.

Our life together was never going to be conventional on any count – I had married an adventure-trip leader nineteen years my senior. It had been his job to plan and lead the trip and ensure that everyone reached England safely.

Shortly after we arrived in London in July we sold one of the Kombis but kept the other. Win began work in his trade as a master builder, and I found a well-paid secretarial job in the West End, not far from Savile Row.
We had no ties, no responsibilities, no jobs back in Australia to return to. Anything seemed possible.

 

My family in Brisbane had had several years to become accustomed to the idea that my life partner had been married before, had less formal education than I had, and had four adult children all roughly my age. Still, I think Mum and Dad thought I had taken leave of my senses when I announced we were planning to marry. My brother, Phil, a medical student, had taken to Win straightaway – they sparked off each other like two stand-up comics. Sadly, Mum and Dad were not able to see that I had found the soul mate I had always dreamed of: the perfect intellectual companion, best friend and tender lover.

I was in love with everything about him – the craggy face with the bald head and Renaissance beard; the strong, well-built body (a legacy of years as a builder, a canoeist and a surf lifesaver at Bondi Beach); the buoyant sense of fun; the love of life; and the passion for nature. The night we met, at the Adventurers' Club in Brisbane, Win was bronzed from a month on the Barrier Reef leading two camping trips back-to-back over Christmas and New Year. The first thing I noticed about him was the smile; the second was the shapely legs in tailored shorts. I could talk with him as though we had always known each other. And he was a sensational dancer, one of only two men I had ever met who could dance like I could. He was forty-three and I was twenty-four, but I was hooked. That night we talked and danced and talked some more. By three in the morning, over coffee in my flat, I realised I had found someone who would be a friend for life.

Still, I trod warily. I had had two offers of marriage in the preceding five years, and had hurt two good men when I had refused them. I had no intention of hurting this good man, who had weathered many rough patches in his life. I was going to do things the right way.

From the start, Win and I drew each other into our respective lives. I became a member of the Adventurers' Club and began my education in camping, wilderness knowledge and the skills of canoeing and snow skiing – a major shift in direction, as I'd had a sedentary life up to that time. I also began to share his passion for jazz music and nature. Meanwhile, I introduced him to all my singing friends and the world of classical music. We went to concerts, ballets and plays. We maintained separate apartments, but as the months went by, I realised our partnership was a seamless fit – more than the sum of us both.

 

My life had had several turning points before we met. My job as a secretary had left me unfulfilled and frustrated, so I'd gone to night school and matriculated to university. Dad had two degrees in engineering and Phil had graduated in economics and was now studying medicine – tertiary education in our family had been only for the men. At twenty-two, I broke the mould and enrolled part-time in French language and literature at the University of Queensland, still working as an executive secretary during the day.

About the same time my spiritual yearnings surfaced, and I became an Anglican. I had kept up my lifelong interest in singing, and had been invited to join an excellent four-part choir singing the best of church music from the Renaissance to the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, as a teenager in Brisbane in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a kind of torpor had lain over my world, as though the subtropical heat and humidity had rendered everyone too lethargic to think expansive thoughts, to look outward, to attempt brave things. We lived in Wilston, a comfortable middle-class suburb where nothing exciting ever seemed to happen. Most of the time I'd felt as though I was in limbo, waiting for life to touch me, anxious that it never would.

In all of this, though, I had never envisaged myself as an adventurer. I was cautious, never leaving my comfort zone. I had never travelled outside Australia and had no plans to. But that was before …

 

I had slotted in to officework in London without a ripple. For me, being in London was like being at the centre of the world. Everything happened there. I read the good newspapers,
The Guardian
and
The Observer
, savoured the colour supplements that came with the weekend editions, and opened my mind to everything. It drew me into a cosmopolitan consciousness, a world away from the suburban outlook I had grown up with, and I came to understand why Samuel Johnson had written that he who was tired of London was tired of life. Our two incomes allowed us to splurge on seats at the opera, ballet and theatre, and at weekends we travelled in the countryside, devouring the history, architecture and landscape. We attended lectures at the Royal Geographical Society, where people like Iain Douglas-Hamilton spoke about elephant conservation in Africa.

Just one thing bothered me. The longer Win and I lived
in London, the more I became aware of a growing discomfort with my job as a secretary. Most of the people we mixed with were professionals and I began to feel like a lesser being. As polite and hospitable as people were towards us, I couldn't shake my feeling of not meeting them on level ground. It niggled at me.

One day at work I pushed my typewriter aside, drew out a blank sheet of paper and wrote down all the things I dreamed of doing. It was a long and visionary list, including wildlife photography, museum curating, travel writing, archaeology – bits and pieces of ideas I had gleaned from reading.

At much the same time, Africa entered my consciousness, not as merely a place on a map where other people went, impossibly remote and eternally mysterious, but as a place where people we knew had been, and had returned from enraptured. The mainstream newspapers constantly carried news of Africa, too – it was little more than a decade since Britain had lost its empire, and events in the former colonies still had immediacy. Each week we would pick up the free newspaper aimed at expatriate Australians, and find it full of ads for overland trips from London to Cape Town by ex-army four-wheel drive truck.

One night, over drinks in our bedsit, I found myself saying what I had been thinking for some time: ‘Why don't we go to Africa?'

‘What, on one of those commercial trips?'

‘No, silly, in the Kombi! Just the two of us.'

‘What, and cross the Sahara?'

‘Yes. People are doing that in Kombis.' There was a long silence. I had planted the seed. Now all I had to do was wait for it to germinate.

The preparations took us a year. We studied maps, read books and saw films, devouring every piece of information we could find, and saved all we could. It would be a six-month trip from London to Cape Town, where we would board a boat to return to Australia. We would travel up the Congo on a car ferry and make our way slowly through the game parks of Kenya and Tanzania. Win had modifications made to the Kombi to protect it against structural damage and fit it for desert conditions. I did a first-aid course, applied for all the visas and brushed up on my French. It soaked up all of my restlessness.

We left London on 25 March 1975, with six months' supply of dried food, a boat ticket from Cape Town to Perth, and an array of jerry cans and spare tyres on the roof-rack. Win would do the driving, as I lacked a manual driver's licence. He would also prepare meals – cooking was one of his passions – and look after the vehicle. I would be the chronicler, keeping a journal and taking photographs, and would navigate, translate and interpret, as most of North Africa was French-speaking. We would share the hard physical tasks of lifting gear and digging out.

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